Who Killed Jack Robinson?

by Frank Thomas Smith

Chapter 10

Charleston is a beautiful city with charming people, though charming doesn’t always mean good. I’d arrived the night before in order to be in P.I. Brandon Moultrie’s office at nine o’clock. Those days it was easier to go by train. By plane you had to make two connections, one in Washington and another in Roanoke, Virginia, and if you missed one of them, which was very possible, you’d be stuck at an airport all day.
    I walked across Charleston’s elegant central square from my hotel, taking in all the budding trees and flowers. I’ve never been much for knowing tree names, so I can’t tell you what they were, but they made me wonder why so many of us lived in places like New York or Chicago when there were paradises like that around. People were on their way to work, but no one hurried. And it was warm, so I took off my topcoat and carried it over my arm.
    Brandon Moultrie’s office was in an old, well kept building a few blocks away on the fourth floor (no elevator). The same day I had called Moultrie to arrange a meeting with the detective who had handled the Rollins case, he called me back and said the meeting was arranged for this day at nine a.m., so, as it was nine-oh-five, I expected to see two fat southern gentlemen nervously awaiting my arrival. For some reason I imagined all southern cops were fat.
    I was wrong on both counts. The only person in the tacky reception was a gum-chewing bleached blonde, who was studiously painting her toenails with her foot up on a chair. The door to the equally tacky inner office was open and it was empty. The position caused her over-tight skirt to ride up to her buttocks. I hadn’t knocked, but she certainly heard me come in. Nevertheless, she carried on. I watched the show.
    “Hi-ya, Honey,” she drawled.
    “Hi there.”
    She turned her head and her mouth opened in a large O – and she said, you guessed it: ”O!” Then, after depositing her bare foot on the floor and smoothing down her skirt, she slipped into high-heeled shoes and said, unembarrassed “Ah thought ya’ll was someone else.”
    “That’s what I thought, too,” I said. She was a lovely girl, or could have been with less paint and decent clothes, but what do I know. “My name is Stark and I have an appointment with Mr. Moultrie at nine o’clock.”
    “Well, that is a coincidence. That’s who ah thought ya’ll were.”
    “So he’s not here.” Brilliant deduction.
    “No, but ah could bet that he’ll be comin’ a-marchin’ through that ol’ door any minute now.”
    “I certainly hope so.” I cooled my heels for another five minutes, and was just about to ask the secretary if she knew any interesting games we could play, when the click of metal-tipped heels in the hall outside announced the arrival of Brandon Moultrie and another man, the former short and thin, the latter tall and extremely thin.
    “Mr. Stark, I presume”, Moultrie said, pumping my hand. “My profound apologies for making you wait.” Without waiting for me to protest that it was quite all right, which I wasn’t about to say, he introduced me to Detective Billy Joe Lee, who just nodded in my general direction. His seemed to be the usual cop’s disdain for private investigators. Moultrie ushered us into his office and, before closing the door, said to the girl, “We are not to be disturbed, Mary Lynn.”
    “I hope you didn’t mind the walk up here, Mr. Stark.” Moultrie said once we were seated, Billy Joe Lee to my left and Moultrie across from us behind a desk that took up most of the office space. “The owner has been talking about putting in an elevator, but we are pretty traditional people around here and, well, we usually prefer things as they are.”
    Whether this was supposed to be some kind of disguised warning, I couldn’t say. “Keeps you in shape,” I said. Moultrie laughed, Billy Joe Lee didn’t.
    “You were the investigating officer in the Jimmy Rollins murder, Detective Lee?” I asked him. He nodded.
    "Mr. Stark, I suggest we get the .. er .. financial aspect of this meeting behind us in order to avoid misunderstandings later,” Moultrie said with a big gap-toothed smile. I would rather have come to that part at the end, but there wasn’t much I could do if Moultrie insisted, which I knew he would. After all, his part of the bargain was only to put me in touch with Lee, with the understanding that Lee would talk. I took an envelope with six hundred dollars from my breast pocket and handed it to him. He opened it, counted out three hundred and handed them to Lee.
    “Could you now tell me the details of your investigation, Detective Lee?”       
    He took out a cop-sized notebook, licked his thumb and flipped the pages till he came to the part he wanted and began to read in a barely audible voice. I got my notebook out quick. “At three-oh-four a.m. on February 6th, 1954, the desk sergeant received a call from the night clerk of the Mahogany Hill Negro Motel on Magnolia Parkway. This individual said…”
    “What was his name,” I interrupted.
    Lee looked at me as though I’d insulted his mother, then flipped forward two pages and said, “Mort Harris.” I nodded, noted it down, and he continued.
    “This individual said that there was noise and commotion from one of his rooms – number 8 – so he went to investigate. As he left the office, he saw a man and a woman leaving number 8. In the dim night light he couldn’t see them very well, so no description but he thought the man was, as he described it ‘a white colored man’ and the woman ‘a real one’”. He glanced up at me, waiting for the obvious question.
    “What did he mean?”
    “He thought the man was a nigra but with light skin; the woman…”
    “OK, I get it.”
     “They drove off in a dark, late model car, which he thought was a Ford.”
    “License number?”
    “No. Got anything to drink in this dump, Brandon?”        
    Moultrie guffawed and took his feet down from the desk. “You know I do, Billie Joe.” He took a bottle of bourbon and three shot glasses from a desk draw and started to pour. “How ‘bout ya’ll, Mr. Stark?”
    “No thanks.”
    “He didn’t get the license number,” Detective Lee went on, “but the car was found the day after.”
    “How’d you know it was the car?”
    “License number was the same as on the room registration, New York plate, so we checked up there and it’d been reported stolen the week before the killing.”
    “Name of owner?”
    “Don’t know that. We sent the car up to the New York police.”
    “How did you do that?” I asked. “Don’t people have to pick up their own stolen cars?”   
    “Depends. Our Yankee colleagues said the owner was ill and couldn’t come, so one of our men drove it up. Didn’t cost nothing; gas tank was full and Greyhound takes us free if it’s on business, so he came back by bus.”
    “That’s good service.” It was. “Which precinct – or did you deliver it directly to the owner?” That was a wise guy remark, so he ignored it and looked again at his notebook. “Twenty-third, Brooklyn.” I noted it down. “Our boy says it’s in the nigger district up there in Brooklyn. So it figures.”
    “What does?”
    “The crime scene was simple. This Rollins naked on the bed with his throat cut, whiskey bottle almost empty, a broken glass, blood all over the place.”
    “Fingerprints?” I asked.
    “Only Rollins’s.”
    “So the killer wiped his own clean.”
    “Looks like it, and the woman’s. Look, Rollins was a ballplayer, he traveled. He was plugging some other nigger’s whore up in Brooklyn, New York, who comes down here and finds him with his whore in the hotel, cuts his throat and takes his whore.”
    I didn’t tell Detective Lee what I was thinking – that he was either an idiot or guilty of dereliction of duty. “So that was the end of the investigation?”
    “Yes, sir. Didn’t see no to waste the taxpayers’ money on some nigger shit.”
    I stood up. “Thank you, Lee. You’ve been very helpful.”
    “Don’t mention it.” He stood up and left.
    “Is it possible?” I asked Moultrie, trying to control my voice.
    Moultrie didn’t look at me. “That’s the way things are here, son.”
    “Don’t call me son. You were on that police force?”
    I think that in spite of everything he was ashamed. He poured himself another whiskey. “I’ll have that drink now, if you don’t mind,” I said, “if you have another glass.” His desk drawers seemed to be full of empty shot glasses. He took another one out and poured. I don’t remember the brand, but it was good stuff.
    “I’m still your client, so tell me, if you wanted to find Rollins’ killer, how’d you go about it?”
    “Wouldn’t try.”
    “Why not?”
    “You’d have to go around the Nigra community lookin’ into things and they wouldn’t talk to no white man.” He started to grin, saw my face and stopped. “Not even to a Yankee.”
    While I was wondering if they’d talk to a Yankee Negro named Jimmy McKey, Moultrie went one: “It’s probably none of my business, but who’s so interested in that kid?”
    “You’re right, Moultrie. It’s none of your business.”    
    Downstairs I hailed a cab and told the fat sweating driver to take me to the Mahogany Hill Negro Motel. “That’s in niggertown,” he said.
    “No kidding. Just go there, OK?”
    He shrugged and drove off. “Cost you double,” he said, watching me in the rear-view mirror.
    I leaned over the back of his seat and said close to his ear, “It’s in the city of Charlotte, isn’t it?”
    “Sure, but..”
    “Well, you take me there and I’m going to pay you what’s on the meter and not a fucking penny more.” I reached into my jacket pocket, in which I had nothing.
    “All right, suh, don’t you go gettin’ excited now.”
    It only took us about ten minutes to reach the Negro section of dilapidated frame houses, old battered cars and streets full of kids. “I don’t know where that motel is,” the driver said.
    “Well, ask someone.”
    He pulled over and asked a small group of young men standing on a street corner. They looked at us as though we were the Klu Klux Klan, then turned away. We kept driving slowly till we came to what looked like the end of the main drag, and there was the Mahogany Hill Negro Motel. It looked like it had just been dragged there from a swamp. There were no cars in front of the rooms. I guessed it was a by-the-hour place. “Wait here, I’ll only be a minute,” I told the driver. “Now look here, mister…” I didn’t wait for him to finish. It looked like a hard place to find a cab. If he wanted to be paid, he’d wait.
    An old black man was seated in the office with his feet on the desk listening to hillbilly music on a squeaky radio. I coughed and he almost jumped to attention. “Yas, suh?”
    “Are you Mort Harris?” I asked in my best authoritarian voice.
    “Nah, suh, he don’t come on till midnight.” I should have though of that, but now that I was there…
    “I see…and you?”
    He squinted suspiciously, probably having noticed my Yankee accent. “You Poh-lice?”
    I handed him me card. He lifted a pair of often-repaired reading glasses from the desk and squinted at the card. “Well, lawdie, lookie here, a private eye..and from New York. Can I keep it?”
    “If you tell me who I’m giving it to, yes.”
    “Jackson R. Moultrie, at yo service. Ain’t got no busyniss card though.”
    “Really? Any relation to Brandon Moultrie?”
    He laughed hard and I had to smile with him.
    “Reckon mah great granddaddy one o his great granddaddy’s slaves. No otherwise I’d have that name.”
    “OK, Mr. Moultrie,” I said, “I wonder if you can tell me about John Rollins’s murder.”
    “Oh that. Well, I wasn’t on duty that night, that was Mort. He already spoke to the police.” He seemed to have dropped the Lawdie, lookie here act now that the discussion was serious.
    “Yes, I know, but I think you may be able to help anyway. Anything you know about it.”
    “May I ask why y’all want to know?”
    “I want to find out who killed him.”
    He meditated on this for a moment, then said, “That’s fair enough. I rented the room to the fella.”
    “You did? Did you tell that to the police?”
    “Didn’t ask me.”
    “Didn’t they talk to you at all?”
    “No suh.”
    “Jesus. What fella? Rollins?”
    “Nope, ‘nother fella.”
    “Did he register?”
    “Of course. Everyone registers.”
    “Do you still have the register?
    “Sure do.” He took a ledger from somewhere below the desk, opened it and ran his finger up from the bottom. “Here it is, number 8, John Brown, three persons.” He smiled. “Hardly no one use their real name here.”
    “Did you know him?” I asked, excited but confused. “What did he look like? Who were the other two?”
    “Not so fast, Mr. private investigator from New York, cain’t answer more than one question at a time, now can I? In fact, I don’t know if I should answer any of ‘em.”
    I took my wallet from my hip pocket, thinking how much I should give him. Ten? Twenty?
    “I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout that, suh,” Jackson R. Moultrie said.
    I put my wallet back, somewhat embarrassed. “What are you talking about then?”
    “Well, I don’t know you or why you’re really askin’ these questions.”
    “Suppose I ask you to trust me and swear that I only want to get to the bottom of this killing.”
    He shook his head. “Not enough. It ain’t easy for us to trust white folks.”
    It was my turn to meditate. Finally I decided I’d have to take the chance. “I’m going to trust you now, Mr. Moultrie, and ask you not to repeat what I’m going to tell you. Can I do that?”
    He shrugged. “Depends on what y’all gonna tell me.”
    An honest man. “Did you ever hear of Jackie Robinson?”
    His mouth opened wide, revealing two lonely teeth. “Why of course I have. What he got to do with it?”
    “My client, who’s a very good man and a friend of Jackie Robinson’s, thinks there might be a connection between John Rollins and Jackie, and Jackie might be in danger. I’m trying to find out if that’s the case.”
    “My God, Mr. Stark, if that’s true… Listen, that fella weren’t no colored man. He wasn’t as white as you, but he was white all right. It ain’t so unusual that white folks come here with colored girls, but… You ever seen a Ay-rab?”
    “An Arab? Why, yes, I think so.”
    “Well I have, and plenny of ‘em. I used to be a sailor, you see, and I went to all kinds a places and seen Ay-rabs, heard them talkin’ English too, and that fella talked and looked just like an Ay-rab.”
    I didn’t know what to make of that, so I just stared stupidly at him.
    “And that gal was wearin’ a white thing like she was a nun or somethin’, but she weren’t no nun.”
    “And the third person was Rollins?” I asked.
    Nope. Weren’t no third person. Fella said he was comin’ later. Never did see him. That’s all I know, Mr. Stark.”
    It was enough to give me a headache. I thanked Jackson R. Moultrie, swore him to secrecy and left the office.       
    My taxi, surprisingly, was still there. “Couple a fellas gave me this envelope for you. Told me to be sure you get it or they’d slash my tires. Where we goin’?”
    I told him to go to the main square. I didn’t want him to know what hotel I was in, though I couldn’t say why. I opened the sealed envelope and read the printed message.
    We don’t like Yankees butting in to our business. If you know what’s good for you you’ll leave before your ass gets busted.

To be continued in the next issue of SCR